A Crack in Rafah's "Berlin Wall": Canada Funding Palestinian Community's Return to Gaza Strip

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A Crack in Rafah's "Berlin Wall": Canada Funding Palestinian Community's Return to Gaza Strip

By Dick Doughty

Many may find the image familiar, even emblematic: a Palestinian family stands behind barbed wire, shouting and waving; in the distance bob the heads of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, cousins and friends. Israeli and Egyptian soldiers patrol the no-man's land between the groups.

Since 1982, this is how nearly 5,000 Palestinians of Canada Camp in Rafah, Egypt, have communicated with relatives in the Gaza Strip who gathered to listen and shout along the Israeli-occupied side of "the wires" or "the calling wall."

"No one leaves that place without weeping," said one young woman.

By August, however, members of 70 of the 363 Palestinian families living in Canada Camp were to have started their moves from Rafah, Egypt, to Rafah, Gaza Strip, in what remains the only instance of an exiled Palestinian community re-entering Israeli-controlled territory since the beginning of the 1967 Israeli occupation. The current movement began on June 30, when the first 10 heads of households crossed from Egypt to begin building houses in Gaza's Tel el Sultan district. They are building on small, assigned plots, alongside 133 Canada Camp families repatriated between 1989 and 1992. Each Thursday in July, 15 additional heads of households were eligible to cross. Near the end of the year, when their houses are certified complete by the new housing authority, the rest of the family will follow.

"We are very, very happy, of course, to see our neighbors and friends come," said Mustafa El Hawi, who arrived in the Gaza Strip from Canada Camp in 1990 and is now environmental projects coordinator for Save the Children in Gaza City. "But it makes the families who remain [in Canada Camp] even more anxious. It will get lonely for them, and the situation inside Canada Camp is unbearable."

Israel built Canada Camp in 1971, during the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, as a relocation camp for Rafah families left homeless by the widening of roads throughout the Gaza Strip, as a part of Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's "Iron Fist" counterinsurgency campaign. The camp lay across the old Egyptian border, but for families ordered to vacate their former homes, that was the least of their worries. In 1982, however, when the final phase of the return of Sinai to Egypt was completed, the Palestinians in Canada Camp were stranded on the wrong side of the new border.

"We were told we would be here a few weeks, not more, and that the Israeli government would give us land in Tel el Sultan," recalled Mohammed el Najjar, camp director for UNRWA. "They said we would receive permits to continue work on the other side, too."

Although Israel indeed allocated the land, it took until 1986 for Egypt and Israel to agree upon a complex procedure that stretched repatriation out over more than a decade. Only a few dozen received work permits, and only eight families were repatriated between 1986 and 1990. Then, 35 families crossed for each of three years through 1992. Nearly 4,500 people still live in Canada Camp, and in over 12 years it has become a humanitarian disaster.

Residents must renew their Egyptian tourist visas every six months. Because residents are not officially permitted to work within Egypt, unemployment hovers at a staggering 70 percent. The single camp school runs three shifts. Almost three-fourths of the residents depend upon bimonthly emergency food rations from the United Nations. UNRWA statistics rank Canada Camp as the most impoverished of the 61 Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East.

"This is a cemetery for the living," said one youth sitting in the shop of a friend, facing another day after school with no library, no youth club, no organized activities available at all--and only one soccer field for the entire camp.

Sources close to the camp (who insisted on anonymity for the safety of their families) also tell of at least 60 male residents of Canada Camp deported mostly to Libya, but also to Sudan, Algeria and Yemen by Egyptian authorities since the intifada began in 1987. …